A Foothold For HealthTech: Ultra-Cheap Pacemakers

I read with great interest Vinod Khosla’s column two weeks ago that discussed the role of tech in healthcare. But as much as tech has to offer the healthcare institution, its effects are perhaps more reliably trackable in the actual medical devices field. A functioning “Dr. Algorithm” would be great – but a “tricorder” device, like that being chased by this X-Prize? That would be something else.

Until these pie-in-the-sky projects come to fruition, though, more modest advances, but which nonetheless save lives, will be made. Medtronic, a major med-tech company, is hoping that the next big thing will actually be small and cheap: a pacemaker for developing countries.

It’s a little different from the “innovation” we’re used to seeing in startups and software, because improving on a medical technology requires significantly more resources and cash than, say, improving on social photography. Such big-money industries aren’t invulnerable — SuVolta is going right up against the likes of Intel — but generally there is pressure from within to keep things fresh, and that suffices to advance the industry.

Medtronic isn’t one of the little guys, but they are taking a fresh tack. They recognize that the development of cheaper versions of existing devices (hearing aids, pacemakers, dialysis machines) no longer means producing a lower-quality component. Consider a mobile phone being given away for free at a store. It’s the budget option now, but it’s ten times as powerful and versatile as phones from five years ago. That same improvement comes about in other industries, and while often the result is better, more expensive versions of the same thing (fMRI versus single-MRI, for instance), it can also mean that the original can be made for significantly less money. Medtronic is hoping ~90% less.

CEO Omar Ishrak has been touting these plans at the World Economic Forum, and with luck he is just one of many who have dedicated themselves to the spread of technology downwards as well as upwards. Siemens and GE (Ishrak’s former employer) call it “frugal innovation,” and it’s things like basic amenities like light and clean water that are created through cutting-edge techniques but made available for microscopic prices — the only prices impoverished communities in rural Somalia or India can afford.

Ishrak hopes to double sales in developing countries over the next few years, and plans to produce a new generation of cheap and modern pacemakers as the first big hardware push. It’s something that can be developed and produce now, as opposed to Dr. Algorithm, who must navigate through a morass of regulations, public distrust, and beta versions. Both will eventually be important, but the devices are definitely coming first. They may not revolutionize the industry, but bringing the industry to the rest of the world in the first place is a necessary first step.